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Evaluating the role of ethnic identity in explaining the occurrence of contemporary civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

High hopes for many newly independent states of Africa became diminished as the 1990s saw over a quarter of the continent's states facing armed insurgencies within their borders (Young, 2002: 534). Commentators often point to pathological, deep-seated hatreds in an African tribal mosaic as the bases of such conflict. The fact is, however, that the continent is awash with political grudges, ethnically-framed and otherwise, but civil wars rarely break out. Thus this essay seeks to take a more nuanced approach to understand the analytical challenge posed by such disorder. Starting out by countering the centrality of ethnic identity, it firstly seeks to demonstrate that ethnic identities do not exist primordially, but that they are constructed on weak foundations. Secondly it endeavours to show that where cleavages do exist along lines of cultural difference, simple heterogeneity is insufficient to account for the outbreak of conflict. Next, it moves to underline the fact that more important in explaining civil conflict is whether such conflict is feasible. This is understood both in terms of the perceived capacity of the state and in terms of the viability of insurgency for would-be rebels. A final conclusion will then be expounded that ethnicity is not a central factor, but that it is simply one of a number of strategies under which conflict may be framed in the rare but ultimately requisite circumstances where rebellion is actually feasible.

Ethnic identity is not a central factor, firstly, because primordial ethnic differences, per se, are not fixed. Where ethnic identity is defined as “a community of people who have the conviction that they have a common identity and common fate based on issues of origin, kinship ties, traditions,…...

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